Possible Move of Guantanamo Detainees to Alexandria for Trial Raises Worries

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An outcry is growing in Alexandria over a prospect no one seems to like: terrorist suspects in the suburbs.

The historic, vibrant community less than 10 miles from the White House markets itself as a "federal friendly zone." But it has turned decidedly unfriendly to news that the Obama administration might move some detainees from their highly controlled military fortress at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Alexandria to stand trial at the federal courthouse.

"We would be absolutely opposed to relocating Guantanamo prisoners to Alexandria," Mayor William D. Euille (D) said. "We would do everything in our power to lobby the president, the governor, the Congress and everyone else to stop it. We've had this experience, and it was unpleasant. Let someone else have it."

The 2006 death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted of conspiring in the terrorist attacks of Sept, 11, 2001, turned the neighborhood into a virtual encampment, with heavily armed agents, rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, blocked streets, identification checks and a fleet of television satellite trucks.

President Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo by January, and the government is reviewing files on the roughly 240 detainees. The administration has strongly indicated that some will be transferred to federal courts, and a senior Justice Department official recently named Alexandria, along with Manhattan, as possible destinations.

Alexandria Sheriff Dana A. Lawhorne, who operates the city jail, said federal security requirements for housing suspects could "overwhelm the system" if multiple detainees are brought there.

City officials and some legislators are concerned that terror trials would take years, shut down roads and cost millions and could invite attacks from terrorist sympathizers. Business owners in the dense area around the courthouse -- newly filled with hotels, restaurants and luxury apartments -- fear disruptions amid a declining economy.

Local officials acknowledged that they cannot control the docket at the federal courthouse and said they would work with the Justice Department to minimize problems. But the resistance in Alexandria, one of the few places known for handling high-level terrorism and national security cases, illustrates some of the practical complexities facing the president's plan to shutter the controversial detention facility.

The Guantanamo detainees include the five accused planners of Sept. 11, among them former al-Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Putting detainees on trial in Alexandria would mean moving them from an isolated island prison 90 miles from Florida to a neighborhood brimming with residents, thousands of federal employees and the new Westin Alexandria Hotel 190 feet from the courthouse door.

"It would be a disaster," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who co-sponsored legislation to ban the use of federal funds to transfer detainees to Virginia detention facilities, one of at least 10 similar bills filed by Republicans nationwide. In a March 13 letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Wolf questioned how officials would protect the community.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the administration is reviewing how to handle Guantanamo detainees. "It's far too early to speculate on the final disposition of any particular detainee at this time, much less begin speculating about potential judicial districts for prosecution," he said. He declined to comment on Wolf's letter.

Matt Branigan, president of Fairfax-based Watermark Risk Management International, said that the security could cost millions and that a courthouse in a less-populated area would be safer than Alexandria.

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